The Secret Life of a Fat Cell

Fat is an unusual substance. It’s the stuff that dimples thighs, thickens waists and enlarges derriers. We typically want it gone, or to at least have it stay in place. We curse it, fight it, try to hide it, and offer to give some away to our skinny friends. Unwanted, under-appreciated, and very much misunderstood–it’s the substance we “love to hate”.

Fat comprises about 5 to 30 percent of your body depending on what kind of shape you are in. The average, normal weight adult has around 30 million fat cells. Rather than just increasing our size and taking up space, we now know that fat cells have many physiologic functions that affect overall health –so much so that fat is now considered a major organ, like the thyroid or adrenal glands. It is becoming increasingly known that fat cells or adipocytes are wildly functional. Like the other organs in the body, fat cells can function in both healthy and unhealthy ways. This makes weight maintenance and nutrition management absolutely essential in order to become and stay healthy.

Fat cells produce adipokines- proteins and hormones that regulate everything from metabolism to weight control to inflammation. Recent studies found 347 proteins that are produced by the fat cell (with some studies showing up to 600), many of which are produced only in overweight people. These included unhealthy proteins that contribute to major diseases. Some unhealthy examples are Resistin (Type II diabetes and heart disease), TNF-alpha, IL-6, IL-8 (inflammation), angiotensinogen (high blood pressure) and adipocyte-derived fibroblasts (cancer). Fat cells produce estrogen in both men and women. The excess estrogen effects sex drive, energy level, mood and the ability to make muscle.

Fat can be white or brown, beige or pink. Like different types of muscle or blood cells, different types of fat cells perform different functions. The average person has 30 billion WHITE fat cells. These white fat cells store fat as triglyceride and cholesterol, and they produce and secrete many proteins. BROWN fat cells store fat as well but have many mitochondria (the energy making organ of the cell) and produce heat by burning fat. Clearly it’s better to have more brown fat cells than white ones.

The American diet is largely made of up way too many grains, starches and sugars that will ultimately turn in to white fat. We are a nation that is unknowingly killing ourselves one bit at a time. Smoking is the only other factor that contributes to chronic, life-shortening illnesses more than excess fat.


This all sounds a bit scary and it could be if you didn’t have a plan to turn things around. One of the best approaches is to convert your white fat storing cells into brown fat energy burning cells. Sounds easy right? Well, in a way it is. This is done in your body by increasing the hormone called irisin and the easiest way to do that is aerobic exercise. Irisin also appears to help prevent or overcome cellular changes that lead to type 2 diabetes. This is a really remarkable and significant discovery. So, if you exercise you will, over time, convert your white fat cells to brown fat cells, slowly making it easier to maintain a lower ideal weight. The effect lingers, since brown fat cells keep burning fat even after you’ve stopped exercising.

Weight gain is commonly present with fatigue and depression. This is not only caused by the increased fat cells but by decreased cortisol (adrenal gland) presence, thyroid gland dysfunction, iron storage problems, raging inflammation. If these issues are things you are wrestling with, consider coming to us for help. Through evaluation of lifestye and specific lab testing, we can determine what the problems are. Remember there is always a cause to these metabolic difficulties, and you don’t have to settle for an unhealthy, unfulfilling life.

Dr. Don Davis, D.C., DACNB is a BOARD CERTIFIED CHIROPRACTIC NEUROLOGIST in Walnut Creek. He has been serving individuals with chronic pain for 30 years. For information about how you can get a free consultation with Dr. Davis, call (925) 279-4324 (HEAL).